For this article, Ranim, our Syria peacebuilding expert and a human rights campaigner at The Syria Campaign, spoke to Layla Hasso, Advocacy Director at the Hurras Child Protection Network in Syria.
A recent report from Save the Children revealed that Russian attacks have damaged more than 800 schools and kindergartens in Ukraine, turning the lives of more than five million children upside down. As I read about these attacks on the news, I relived all the hard moments we’ve been through in recent years in Syria trying to save children from bombs and trauma. At the same time, we continue to do everything we can to protect their precious years in education.
During my time working with Hurras over the years, I have met teachers and child protection officers going above and beyond to support their students and to sustain education in the harshest of circumstances. Today, I think back on all the lessons we’ve learned, which I wish we had known at the start of the war in Syria. I want to pass them on to educators in Ukraine hoping they can be of some help.
Lessons from Syria
We’ve learnt to prepare for the worst. We work side by side with rescue workers and civil defense teams to train our teachers and students on safe evacuation during periods of bombing. We set up early warning devices in our schools to alert us of approaching warplanes, giving us precious minutes to evacuate the children before bombs hit our schools. Wherever we could, we moved our classrooms to underground shelters and locations as far away as possible from the bombs.
In the midst of bombardment, our teachers do everything they can to keep the children calm. Hugs help to calm their nerves, and so does singing loudly until the warplanes leave the skies.
After each military campaign by the regime and Russia, we lose children to unexploded bombs and ordnance left behind near school areas. When our students lose a classmate, we make sure to give them time to grieve. We hold funeral ceremonies to allow the children to say farewell properly. It helps to mend their broken hearts and cope better. We then prioritize working with civil defense teams specialized in neutralizing these explosive ordnances and raising awareness among students to keep them safe.
There have been times when whole neighborhoods and cities were emptied of their residents. So many families were torn apart and lost each other in the chaos of being forcibly displaced. We taught families to make sure their children had their full contact information with them on a bracelet or sewn into their clothes. We also asked them to keep important official documents on them all the time to show their rights to properties or children’s custody.
Under the harshest circumstances, maintaining a routine has been one of the most important things to help our children cope and recover. We learned that the first step to recovering from trauma is to ensure children can continue their education as part of their daily routine. Our main goal has always been to keep schools open, whether in underground shelters or virtually.
When going to school was too dangerous, or during the COVID-19 lockdown, we started using remote learning tools that are easy to use and accessible to everyone. These included virtual classrooms in WhatsApp group chats where our teachers would read to their students and answer their questions via voice notes.
We have documented all the attacks on our schools and children and we built records of testimonies from eye witnesses, gathering evidence to pursue justice and accountability for these crimes. We made sure to invite recognized international organizations to document violations to ensure the evidence is seen as legitimate in the eyes of international courts.
We made the mistake of sharing the locations of our schools with the UN under the deconfliction mechanism. We hoped it would protect our children, but instead we were worried they had become targets. We warn others not to make the same mistake. Hundreds of schools have been deliberately targeted by Russian warplanes in the past few years, killing many of our dear students and teachers with impunity. Do not trust the UN with school coordinates because it will only make them easy targets.
Education doesn’t stop being a priority even in times of war and chaos. The support and routine that teachers provide can be life-saving for children, especially young girls, living in vulnerable and dangerous environments such as makeshift camps or near the frontline of war. We will continue to call on the international community to step up their assistance to keep our schools open in Syria. We also offer our support to colleagues under attack in Ukraine and around the world so that all our children have the right to a proper and safe education.